Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s Fourteenth Film: “Wild River”

Today, as part of our “Kazan Redux” series, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s fourteenth film, “Wild River.” The review below was first posted on June 27, 2017 and has been slightly revised.

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Wild River
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick, and Jo Van Fleet
20th Century Fox, 1960, 110 minutes

5 Stars

Director Elia Kazan had visited the Cumberland area of Tennessee in the early 1930s as an idealistic, young communist. He admired the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which tamed the flood-prone Tennessee River while providing much-needed hydro-electric power. For many years, Kazan desired to make a film about the tensions involved in the push for the greatest common good as represented by the TVA versus the disruption of individuals’ lives caused by the project.

Plot

M&L

It’s the 1930s and the TVA is on the verge of damming the Tennessee River and flooding several river valleys. Chuck Glover (Monty Clift), a TVA bureaucrat based in Washington, is sent down to Garthville, Tennessee with the mission of removing the last remaining holdout, eighty-year-old Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet), who has no intention of selling her soon-to-be-flooded river island. Her widowed granddaughter, Carol (Lee Remick), is attracted to the urbane Glover and the two quickly form a relationship. Glover persuades Ella’s Black tenant farmers to leave the island along with their families, but the matriarch remains adamant. At the same time, resentment mounts among the local White citizenry towards Glover’s policy of paying Blacks the same wages as Whites to help clear trees in preparation for the controlled flooding. Carol aggressively pursues the ambivalent Glover, asking him to marry her at the very moment the rednecks arrive at her house in order to send Glover packing. He can only admire Carol’s spunky defiance of the gang of good ol’ boys and asks her to elope. A federal marshal is finally brought in to evict Ella from the island. She is provided a small house on higher ground, but dies of heartbreak shortly after. On their way to Washington D.C. via airplane, Glover, Carol, and her two children look down and view the river and the only portion of Garth Island still above water; the family cemetery plot containing Ella’s fresh grave. Glover admired Ella for her foolhardy stubbornness, but she stood in the way of “progress” and had to be sacrificed.

Comments

Kazan filmed “Wild River” on location in the towns of Charleston and Cleveland, Tennessee. Close to one-hundred locals were used as extras. Emotionally-crippled Monty Clift barely held it together throughout the filming. Kazan’s accounts of the actor’s performance are quite interesting. While Kazan bragged that he bullied Clift into remaining sober throughout the shoot, town lore has it that the McClary sisters regularly snuck liquor up to his room at the Cherokee Hotel. Twenty-five-year-old Lee Remick is superb as the young, love-starved widow. When she confidently and aggressively courts Clift, it’s all he can do just to sit gape-mouthed on the couch, leaving every viewer scratching their head. Jo Van Fleet is fantastic as Ella, skillfully portraying the eighty-year-old matriarch at the age of forty-five. Albert Salmi is entertaining as the alpha good ol’ boy. Overall, it’s a wonderful cast which includes several Kazan regulars.

“Wild River” was one of Kazan’s favorite films although its limited art house release guaranteed unprofitability. Fox was convinced 1960 movie audiences would not be interested in a film about the TVA. The movie was rarely shown on television and was only recently (2013) released on Blu-ray DVD.

Kazan had attempted to write the film script himself, but eventually hired seasoned screenwriter, Paul Osborne. Kazan especially admired the conflict between Glover and Ella in which both held to positions that were simultaneously right and wrong. Relations between Blacks and Whites in the 1930’s segregated Deep South are portrayed quite candidly for a movie made in 1960.

I’ve seen “Wild River” many times but I appreciated watching it for the first time in HD on Blu-ray. Commentary is provided by Time magazine film critic, Richard Schickel, who doesn’t hide his deep admiration for “Wild River” or for Kazan and Remick. This is a pretty good film, but Remick’s performance as someone attempting to straddle both “tradition” and “progress” was Oscar-worthy outstanding.

Additional thoughts from a believer

The Black workers on Garth island and Carol and her children regularly sing old Gospel hymns, with “In the Garden” featured most prominently. Kazan contrasts Christianity and “traditional” values (which includes negative attitudes such as racism) with utopian Liberal Progressivism. I’m all for improving people’s physical circumstances, but true redemption can’t be found in either progressive or conservative politics. Jesus Christ transcends politics and physical circumstances. But in all fairness to Kazan, one of the main messages of this film is that even the most “successful” progressive social engineering project will have its share of victims.

Next up: Kazan’s fifteenth film, “Splendor in the Grass” (1961).

♫ You say you want a revolution… ♫

Viva Zapata!vz
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Marlon Brando, Jean Peters, and Anthony Quinn
Twentieth Century-Fox, 1952, 113 minutes

By 1952, director Elia Kazan had achieved extraordinary artistic and commercial success on Broadway and in Hollywood. But the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was also interested in Kazan because he had been a member of the American Communist Party from 1934-36 and his films advocated social progressivism. Perhaps in deference to increasing pressure from HUAC, Kazan made “Viva Zapata,” a salute to the revolutionary proletariat but also an indictment of Stalinism. “Viva Zapata” was released in February 1952 and Kazan was called to appear before HUAC in April when he testified as a friendly witness, naming names of fellow communists and earning the undying wrath of liberals. Kazan’s following two films, “Man On A Tightrope” (1953) and “On The Waterfront” (1954), also attacked Stalinism and attempted to justify his HUAC friendly testimony.

Plot

A group of Mexican peasants petitions right-wing dictator, President Diaz, for land reform. The patronizing Diaz notes the insolence of one particular individual, Emilio Zapata (Marlon Brando). Zapata grows in stature as a leader of the people with his spirited brother, Eufemio (Anthony Quinn), at his side. His peasant army joins in the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to overthrow Diaz and install liberal reformer Madero as president. As Zapata’s fame and influence rises he marries Josefa (Jean Peters), the daughter of a rich merchant. Impatient with the well-meaning but befuddled Madero, Zapata continues the fight for agrarian reform. Madero is felled in a coup led by General Huerta. Zapata and the the other rebel generals eventually drive Huerta into exile. Zapata is appointed president of Mexico but quickly resigns in frustration. Mexico’s new rulers, former leftist revolutionaries, hunt down Zapata, eventually killing him in an ambush. Journalist, Fernando Aguirre (Joseph Wiseman), a shadowy figure and former adviser to Zapata and the other revolutionary leaders, has a hand in Zapata’s death.

Commentary

Unfortunately, acclaimed novelist John Steinbeck’s script does not flow easily. You’ll need a scorecard to keep track of all of the politicos and los comandantes. First, the bad guy is Diaz. Then it’s Madero. Then Huerta. Then Carranza. Ay, caramba! We know from later interviews with Kazan that the Aguirre character was meant to represent unscrupulous Stalinism but the average viewer would never make that connection on their own. Zapata and his revolutionary compadres are romanticized a great deal by Kazan. The last reel is as hokey as it gets with peasants denying Zapata’s death and his white horse galloping off into the sunset. One hundred years after the Revolution, Mexico continues to struggle politically and economically. Brando, Peters, and Quinn turn in fine performances with Quinn winning a supporting Oscar. As a trivia note, Jean Peters was the second wife of the eccentric Howard Hughes. The “Viva Zapata” Blu-ray was released in 2013 but offers no commentary or special features other than the trailer.

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective

Perhaps the most truthful moment of this film is when Zapata has ascended to the presidency and a group of peasants present him with their grievances. Zapata angrily takes down the name of the most insolent peasant just as as Diaz had taken down his name several years before. The oppressed become the oppressors. The hearts of men are desperately wicked.

People look to their nation, government, and society for their identity and fulfillment. While God’s Word says Christians are to be law-abiding citizens so as to be a good testimony to our unbelieving neighbors, our primary citizenship is in Heaven. We are ambassadors and emissaries for our Heavenly King as we journey through this world. Real freedom and fulfillment come through rebirth and identity in Jesus Christ, not through nations, governments, political parties, or revolution.

Director Elia Kazan’s Third Film: “Boomerang”

Boomerangboo
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Dana Andrews, Jane Wyatt, Lee J. Cobb, Arthur Kennedy, Cara Williams, and Karl Malden
20th Century Fox, 1947, 88 minutes

Fox producer, Louis de Rochemont, creator of “The March of Time” theatrical monthly newsreels and father of the film noir genre, enlisted Elia Kazan to direct “Boomerang.” De Rochemont’s movies were filmed on location and included non-actors to help achieve a semi-documentary sense of realism. The experience of directing “Boomerang” would have a profound effect upon Kazan’s career.

Plot

A popular Roman Catholic priest, father George Lambert (Wyrley Birch), is murdered in cold blood on a busy street corner of a small Connecticut city. As days go by without an arrest, a daily newspaper controlled by the ousted conservative (Republican) party foments public indignation. Demands for the newly elected reform (Democrat) government to find the killer reach fever pitch. A suspect, John Waldron (Arthur Kennedy), is finally arrested and police chief, Harold “Robbie” Robinson (Lee J. Cobb), coerces a confession. As the district attorney, Henry Harvey (Dana Andrews), prepares to prosecute the case, he uncovers some disturbing evidence that seems to exonerate Waldron. A corrupt reform government official, Paul Harris (Ed Beagley), fears drawn out court proceedings will expose a pending illegal property deal and threatens Harvey to press for a conviction. While presenting the evidence against Waldron, Harvey defies all proper courtroom protocol (you’ll have to see it to believe it) to conclusively prove the accused wasn’t the murderer, prompting Harris to commit suicide. At the film’s conclusion, the audience learns from the narrator that the actual killer (a mentally unbalanced man who stalked the courtroom during the trial) was a victim of a fatal auto accident and that the honorable DA went on to become the United States Attorney General.

Commentary

“Boomerang,” Kazan’s third film, was loosely based on the unsolved murder of priest, Hubert Dahme, in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1924. Filming was done in nearby Stamford rather than Bridgeport because of legal difficulties. “Boomerang” is often included in the film noir category although purists would object that it doesn’t meet all the criteria. This is a so-so story but the film is considered a significant step for Kazan because of it’s on-location, docu-drama realism. The cast is pretty good although leading man, Dana Andrews, plays his single pensive note throughout, looking most natural with a drink tumbler in his hand.  Jane Wyatt (“Father Knows Best”) portrays Harvey’s naive wife who serves drinks to “the boys” and little else. Lee J. Cobb is outstanding as the tough-as-nails police chief while corruption oozes out of every one of Ed Beagley’s sweaty pores. Cara Williams (baby boomers will remember her from the early-60s TV show, “Pete and Gladys”) plays an excellent femme fatale as Waldron’s ex-girlfriend. Sam Levene gives an entertaining performance as the wily reporter from the opposition newspaper. Yes, that’s playwright Arthur Miller making a cameo in a police lineup and Kazan’s Uncle Joe plays a small part as one of the witnesses. Numerous Stamford locals were featured in the film. Many of Kazan’s future movies would employ the on-location, docu-drama techniques he first utilized in “Boomerang” as he continued to move further towards realism.

The ending of this movie is quite unsatisfying. Everyone exits the courtroom applauding the DA for exonerating an innocent man, but they all seem to have forgotten that the killer remains at large. It’s also a bit unbelievable that Harris’s courtroom suicide didn’t seem to faze anyone after the gunsmoke cleared. Richard Murphy’s script was inexplicably nominated for an Oscar.

“Boomerang” is an indictment of both political parties for corruption and some have also suggested the film was Kazan’s thinly-veiled critique of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and its politically-motivated “witch hunts.” Kazan was eventually pressured to testify before HUAC as a friendly witness, earning the wrath of liberals throughout the remainder of his life.

The recently released Blu-ray edition of “Boomerang” includes two interesting audio commentary tracks; one from film noir historian, Imogen Sara Smith, and the other by film historians, Alain Silver and James Ursini.

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective

The priest’s murderer nervously watches the courtroom proceedings hoping Waldron is convicted in his place. When the case against Waldron collapses, the killer flees the courtroom in a panic.

We are all guilty of breaking God’s commandments and we all deserve eternal punishment. We can’t hide our sins from an omniscient and holy God. But God loves us so much He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to pay our sin debt on the cross of Calvary. Jesus rose from the grave, defeating sin and death, and offers eternal life and everlasting fellowship with God to all those who accept Him as their Savior by faith. Christ paid your penalty so you could go free. Will you accept Him as your Savior?